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Outspoken Advocate: Helen Hunt Jackson

A popular poet, fiction writer, and essayist, Helen Hunt Jackson was a prominent and indomitably outspoken advocate for the rights of Native American people. She produced a barrage of words–letters, speeches, articles, essays, and two important books: “A Century of Dishonor, a searing critique of the U.S. government’s Indian policies, and “Ramona, a romance about a mixed-race woman and her Indian husband that she hoped would change bigoted attitudes. (Ramona sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and spawn four movies, television shows, and a pageant that is performed yearly in the Ramona Bowl in California.) Born two months apart in Amherst, Massachusetts, Helen (born first) and Emily Dickinson were childhood friends. A mutual friend reconnected them when they were in their late 30s. By then Helen’s two children and her husband had died and she had turned to writing to fill the void, as well as to support herself. Emily, who was living in her childhood home, had disengaged from social activities and focused on her poems, making clean copies of earlier poems and producing many more new ones. (Hundreds of poems in 40 handsewn booklets were discovered after she died,) Sending letters back and forth they rekindled their friendship. Helen visited Emily on two occasions. Helen was full-bodied with plump cheeks and Emily was a thin-faced, wisp of a woman. A critically acclaimed poet, Helen was nationally known. Emily was an unknown poet. While Helen was trying to change policies and attitudes with her words, Emily was keeping hers private, a fact that exasperated Helen. “It is cruel and wrong,” she fumed in a letter, for Emily to deprive people of her poems. “I do not think we have a right to withhold from the world a word or a thought any more than a deed, which might help a single soul.” Helen Hunt Jackson died in 1885. A year later so did Emily Dickinson.

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